I have a thing about sticking up for the over/underdogs–the highly successful musicians that people just can’t wait to hate on.
Whether it’s journalists in the 70s turning their noses up at the Archies while praising Toto and Chicago, or oddly spiteful faux-journalists who hate Kreayshawn to the point where they’re taking solitary, reasonable quotes out of context and then linking them to Wikipedia entries about black youth being shot in Oakland two years prior to somehow make it seem that Kreayshawn is a whiny entitled race exploiter, too often my fellow music journalists take the easy way out: they find a target to hate that they know a lot of “hip” people would be eager to take issue with, and they hate on ‘em good. “Ooooh, look at me, with the balls to call pop music ‘vapid!’” How clever. How brave. And for anyone who likes the rawness of rock, country, and hip hop, how hypocritically selective. Compared to the dexterity of jazz or the sober precision of classical, we’re all retarded perverts flinging blocky chunks of musical clay into a three minute sludge. We’re cavemen, and I thought we were proud of that!
But there’s one musician whose works I am slowly coming to love who indisputably is kind of lame: Hank Williams Jr. In fact, he’s kind of a monster. Yesterday’s quote about Obama being like Hitler that got him kicked off ESPN was actually relatively rational compared to some of the things he’s done, if you’ve been paying attention to his PR ouevre. His advocacy for Sarah Palin a couple years ago was outright weird, as was his ridiculous version of “Family Tradition” that he made for the McCain/Palin ticket, which blamed the Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac bailout on Clinton and said that Obama had friends linked with terrorism (as though Sarah Palin’s husband wasn’t an anti-American separatist). And of course, his creepy fantasy song from 1988 about how good things would be if the South had won the Civil War gave a boner to thousands of rednecks while sidestepping the fact that millions of black people wouldn’t find that scenario quite so wonderful.
And yet, and yet… if you, dear reader, are building up your country music fandom, can I just strongly recommend that you please don’t pass up this man’s stuff? Despite the annoyance of his Monday Night Football anthem, ol’ Bocephus was once a solid country musician. Even Little Richard thinks so.
Look, love is an emotion that infects both the smart and the dumb, and it’s not necessarily the politically savvy who can sing with the most conviction about the joy of living or the pain of longing. Hank Williams, Jr. has had a lot to long for–a dead famous father, an accident that left him scarred and forced to wear his trademark beard, hat, and sunglasses at all times, and he must be upset that all his “rowdy friends” in country music are actually liberal pinkos who love prisoners, government programs, and true American freedoms, i.e. Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, the late Johnny Cash, you name it. While I agree with folks like Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon that rich millionaires who pretend to be down-home are scum, I disagree that Hank Jr’s wealth alone makes him inauthentic. Whatever his crimes against human decency, it hasn’t prevented the man from occasionally making BLISTERING country that can pull at your fucking heartstrings:
Even a song like “Dinosaur,” which has a mean anti-gay streak, also paints a picture of a time that to me is fascinating–blue collar workers being shoved out of their own clubs by corporate disco. Despite how I might feel about disco (Giorgio Moroder is my boy, and I love muted hi-hats), this character sure hates it, and you can feel the pain of this dude who just wants to go drink whiskey and listen to some old “country and rhythm and blues” but is being force-fed this alienating music that has no place at his saloon. Do I have to agree with his politics or even his mores to feel this character’s pathos?
I guess what I’m saying is, I acknowledge that Hank is far from perfect, but sometimes I’d rather cry with the sinners than laugh with the saints. When I listen to Hank Williams, Jr., I’m going to focus on the young man he once was, the poor little boy whose mother made him dress like his dead father, the figure he had to struggle to overcome. And when I listen to the modern Hank Williams, Jr. (and remember, he’s like a senile senior now) opine about politics, I’m going to pretend I’m watching C.S. Lewis, Jr: